The unreality that has long pervaded American politics, policy-making and media reportage is by now almost totally impenetrable. Both action and analysis in the most powerful nation in history now take place in a fantasy world, a simulacrum, a state of permanent amnesia in which facts -- established, confirmed, published -- vanish almost in the very moment of their appearance. Anyone who tries to reason their way through this feverish hallucination is bound to fail -- or succumb to the madness themselves.
This hallucinatory quality of American public life has been on vivid display in recent days, with stories in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek and elsewhere about a secret CIA program to develop death squads to exterminate "top al Qaeda leaders" in Israeli-style "targeted assassinations." We are told that Dick Cheney was responsible for drawing up these plans -- and for illegally keeping them secret from Congressional oversight. We are also assured that these plans, promulgated by a presidential directive in 2001, "hadn't become fully operational" by the time that new CIA Director Leon Panetta terminated them after taking up his post earlier this year. The plans were developed, we're told, but never implemented. Still, the very fact of their existence is considered by some commentators as a grave scandal, one made even worse by Cheney's cover-up.
All of this is very curious. For the established, confirmed, published fact of the matter is that a CIA assassination program run by the White House on direct orders from the president was put into operation in late 2001. It was operative for many years (and might still be operative; we of course do not know what program Panetta actually terminated -- or if he really has terminated any program). Nor was this assassination program aimed solely at "top al Qaeda leaders": it targeted any number of "suspected" terrorists, whose guilt -- and sentence of death -- was arbitrary decided by the president, or by the agents in the field to whom Bush issued a literal license to kill. The first known victim of this CIA death squad was an American citizen, killed by a CIA-fired drone missile in Yemen. By Bush's own public admission -- in a nationally televised appearance before both houses of Congress in 2003 -- many "suspected terrorists" (his own description) had been killed by American agents.
None of this was secret. All of the above facts were reported in reputable, mainstream newspapers and journals -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the New Yorker, etc. -- beginning in October 2001. And these stories themselves were based on statements by Administration officials, who in many instances were eager to brag about "taking the gloves off" and other macho locutions. Or as one CIA operative in Afghanistan told the Boston Globe in 2002: "We are doing things I never believed we would do -- and I mean killing people."
For more than half a decade, it has been an open, easily established, easily confirmable fact that the White House used the CIA as a death squad to kill people that it "suspected" of being terrorists. (The use of such death squads was not limited to the CIA, of course. For example, in January 2003, the Pentagon's Special Operations Command was given the power "to kill and capture al Qaeda operatives and other terrorists," as the Washington Times reported. Stanley McChrystal, the man appointed by Barack Obama to command the war in Afghanistan, was the commander of these Special Ops forces in Iraq for several years.)
And yet here we are, in July 2009, wringing our hands over the alleged existence of "unrealized" plans to perhaps set up some kind of CIA death squad on the orders of Dick Cheney! And even this hallucination is riddled with unreality of its own: witness the emphasis on Cheney's involvement when even the new stories make clear that Cheney was acting on the authority of a presidential directive. George W. Bush is being written out of the picture; evidently he is to remain untainted even by the current spate of fantasy stories, which not only ignore the proven, acknowledged existence of actual, active CIA death squads but also Bush's central role in actually signing the directives that made the killings possible. Even if one buys the notion that Bush was a dimbulb who simply signed whatever the wily Cheney shoved under his nose, that does not absolve Bush of the moral and legal responsibility for these state-sanctioned murders.
But as I say, it looks as if even some of the most forthright Bush critics are not only writing Bush out of the equation with their focus on Cheney, they are also writing the death squads themselves out of existence, by taking the new set of stories at face value and pretending -- or forgetting? -- what these same newspapers reported just a few years ago.
And so the "controversy" over a non-actuated program whose non-actuality was covered up by Cheney rolls on, obscuring the blood-soaked reality of the real programme whose deadly effects were openly reported -- and, again, championed on the broadest possible public stage by the president himself.
It is, by any measure, a very strange, mind-bending state of affairs. Yet this is the way our world works now; and almost every earnest disquisition on politics and policy that we read -- from left, right or center -- is based on just this sort of hallucination.
Below is an excerpt of a column I wrote in 2005, summarizing some of the known facts about the death squads at the time:
On September 17, 2001, George W. Bush signed an executive order authorizing the use of "lethal measures" against anyone in the world whom he or his minions designated an "enemy combatant." This order remains in force today. No judicial evidence, no hearing, no charges are required for these killings; no law, no border, no oversight restrains them. Bush has also given agents in the field carte blanche to designate "enemies" on their own initiative and kill them as they see fit.
The existence of this universal death squad – and the total obliteration of human liberty it represents – has not provoked so much as a crumb, an atom, a quantum particle of controversy in the American Establishment, although it's no secret. The executive order was first bruited in the Washington Post in October 2001. I first wrote of it in my Moscow Times column in November 2001. The New York Times added further details in December 2002. That same month, Bush officials made clear that the dread edict also applied to American citizens, as the Associated Press reported.
The first officially confirmed use of this power was the killing of an American citizen in Yemen by a CIA drone missile on November 3, 2002. A similar strike occurred in Pakistan this month, when a CIA missile destroyed a house and purportedly killed Abu Hamza Rabia, a suspected al Qaeda figure. But the only bodies found at the site were those of two children, the houseowner's son and nephew, Reuters reports. The grieving father denied any connection to terrorism. An earlier CIA strike on another house missed Rabia but killed his wife and children, Pakistani officials reported.
But most of the assassinations are carried out in secret, quietly, professionally, like a contract killing for the mob. As a Pentagon document unearthed by the New Yorker in December 2002 put it, the death squads must be "small and agile," and "able to operate clandestinely, using a full range of official and non-official cover arrangements to...enter countries surreptitiously."
The dangers of this policy are obvious, as a UN report on "extrajudicial killings" noted in December 2004: " Empowering governments to identify and kill 'known terrorists' places no verifiable obligation upon them to demonstrate in any way that those against whom lethal force is used are indeed terrorists... While it is portrayed as a limited 'exception' to international norms, it actually creates the potential for an endless expansion of the relevant category to include any enemies of the State, social misfits, political opponents, or others."
It's hard to believe that any genuine democracy would accept a claim by its leader that he could have anyone killed simply by labeling them an "enemy." It's hard to believe that any adult with even the slightest knowledge of history or human nature could countenance such unlimited, arbitrary power, knowing the evil it is bound to produce. Yet this is what the great and good in America have done. Like the boyars of old, they not only countenance but celebrate their enslavement to the ruler.
This was vividly demonstrated in one of the revolting scenes in recent American history: Bush's State of the Union address in January 2003, delivered to Congress and televised nationwide during the final frenzy of war-drum beating before the assault on Iraq. Trumpeting his successes in the Terror War, Bush claimed that "more than 3,000 suspected terrorists" had been arrested worldwide – "and many others have met a different fate." His face then took on the characteristic leer, the strange, sickly half-smile it acquires whenever he speaks of killing people: "Let's put it this way. They are no longer a problem."
In other words, the suspects – and even Bush acknowledged they were only suspects – had been murdered. Lynched. Killed by agents operating unsupervised in that shadow world where intelligence, terrorism, politics, finance and organized crime meld together in one amorphous, impenetrable mass. Killed on the word of a dubious informer, perhaps: a tortured captive willing to say anything to end his torment, a business rival, a personal foe, a bureaucrat looking to impress his superiors, a paid snitch in need of cash, a zealous crank pursuing ethnic, tribal or religious hatreds – or any other purveyor of the garbage data that is coin of the realm in the shadow world.
Bush proudly held up this hideous system as an example of what he called "the meaning of American justice." And the assembled legislators...applauded. Oh, how they applauded! They roared with glee at the leering little man's bloodthirsty, B-movie machismo. They shared his sneering contempt for law – our only shield, however imperfect, against the blind, brute, ignorant, ape-like force of raw power. Not a single voice among them was raised in protest against this tyrannical machtpolitik: not that night, not the next day, not ever.
You can also find more on the US-UK death squad operation in Iraq, and its lineage, in "Ulster on the Eurphrates: The Anglo-American Dirty War in Iraq."
This column is republished here with the permission of the author.
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This story was published on July 15, 2009.